Smithson: For many, the 1972 Summit Series is etched in memory

The so-called Summit Series was the first time the best players from the Soviet Union challenged the best from Canada (or most of them).

As we celebrated another Labour Day and contemplated an autumn without NHL hockey, perhaps, for some of us, the 40th anniversary of the start of the 1972 Canada-Russia hockey series slipped by unnoticed.

Yeah, yeah, I know, old farts like me seem obsessed with 1972 and what’s the big deal it was just another hockey series and who ever came up with the dumb idea of an eight-game series and who the heck was Paul Henderson and did Gretzky play in that one and who cares about anything that ancient and did they even have television back then, anyway? This is the sort of response you might get when talking to anyone under the age of 20 about September, 1972.

But the so-called Summit Series wasn’t just one in an innumerable volume of international series each year (as it would be, today). It was the first time the best players from the Soviet Union challenged the best from Canada (or most of them, anyway).

And though nobody really knew it at the time, the Summit Series became an anchor-point for Canadian hockey. The prior generation had the Richard riot in Montreal to point back at, and maybe today’s younger generation will have Canada’s 2010 Olympic Gold medal game as their “where were you then?” moment, but for millions of Canadians roughly 50 years of age or older, 1972 is frozen in time.

It was a period when Canadians still dominated the NHL., there wasn’t an Ovechkin to be found here, and when summer meant relaxing and getting away from hockey and, inevitably, putting on weight and waiting for training camp to start getting in shape. A lot has changed in 40 years, and those latter habits would just about doom the Canadians against the hard-as-nails (or so they seemed) Soviets.

Game 1 of the series was played Sept. 2, 1972 in the old Forum in Montreal.  As I recall, vaguely, expectations weren’t all that high for the Soviets and so the series was considered not much more than a novelty at the outset.

I remember I was camping with my family just outside Ottawa on that Labour Day weekend and someone had a portable black and white television with an antenna which, in those days, probably picked up only three channels—CBC English, CBC French, and CTV. The series was of low enough importance to me (not yet having turned 11) that I didn’t even bother to watch the first game, though I think I did hear the Soviet anthem for the first time (and it still sends a chill up my spine when I hear it, today).

I have two recollections of that first game.  Someone yelled that Canada had scored after 30 seconds and then again a few minutes later. Content that the universe was unfolding as it should, I went back to doing what kids at campgrounds do.

My second memory is of learning that Team Canada had lost 7-3 and of my utter confusion at that result. Maybe this thing wasn’t going to be all fun and games after all.

As the series moved westward towards the outpost of Vancouver, I recall a roller coaster of emotions as Canada won game two, tied game three and then self-destructed in game four and were booed off the ice. I have a vague recollection of Phil Esposito’s outburst on live television after that game.

The words I remember most from Espo that day were, “…everyone of us guys, 35 guys that came out and played for Team Canada, we did it because we love our country, and not for any other reason, no other reason.…And I don’t think it’s fair that we should be booed.” Well said, Phil.  If that doesn’t tell you something about Canadian athletic pride, perhaps nothing will.

It was at that point, after game 4, that I think many people first understood what the Canadian players were up against.  Unprepared, overconfident, missing key cogs like Bobby Orr (injury)

and, most blatantly, Bobby Hull, Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and J.C. Tremblay (all unfairly excluded because they had signed with the rival WHA), the Canadians were in the fight of their lives.

Heading to the Soviet Union, team Canada faced the daunting and unlikely task of winning three of the remaining four games to take the series. A two-week break and the departure of three Canadian players only gave more time for the national hand-wringing to escalate.

For me, the final four games at the Luzhniki Ice Palace in Moscow have become a bit of a grainy blur. I can still picture Esposito slipping and landing on his behind during the pre-game introductions before game 5.

Aside from that, I mostly remember the emotions, the desperation especially after Canada lost that game 5. Down 3-1 in the series, the Canadians’ task seemed truly impossible and I can’t recall anyone thinking we had a chance—this was quite a drastic turnaround from many pre-series predictions that the Soviets wouldn’t win a single match.

But, in what is still engrained in my memory as the grittiest, dirtiest, most emotional hockey of my lifetime, the Canadians came back. You couldn’t call it “storming” back, because each game was won in a dogfight by a single goal (scored, each time, by Paul Henderson).

It was high drama by game 6, when Bobby Clarke neutralized the Soviets’ best player, Valeri Kharlomov, with a slash to break his ankle.  Game 7 was punctuated by the Soviet player, Boris Mikhailov, kicking Canadian Gary Bergman.

My foggy recollection is that my class watched the pivotal game 8, on Sept. 28, in my classroom. It may have been the fact that our teacher was the school principal that allowed us this perk.

Unfortunately, that’s about all I recall. The rest of what I now think of game 8 comes, surely, from having seen highlights, retrospective documentaries, photographs, and multiple books.

The game was tied 2-2 after one period, but Canada was down 5-3 after two. Behind the eight ball once again, Esposito and Yvan Cournoyer scored to tie it up as the Soviets fell into a defensive shell.

With but 34 seconds to go, Henderson was there, again, to bang in the most famous goal that will ever be scored by a Canadian hockey player. And if you’ve never heard Foster Hewitt’s call of that deciding goal, you’ve been living in a cave for the last 40 years.

My theory is that the word “adversity” entered the Canadian hockey lexicon during that time in September, 1972. Nowadays, every successful hockey team, from the pro ranks right down to atom level, talks about having to “overcome adversity” on the way to winning.

September 1972 stamped on Canadian hockey players this quality that, after we’ve experienced our worst, we will achieve our best. It originated with Esposito, Henderson, Cournoyer,

Dryden and Clarke and it resides genetically—whether they know it or not—in the mind of every Canadian boy and girl who laces up skates and picks up a stick and a puck.

It’s what makes us the best at what we do, and we owe it all to 1972.

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